American worship leader and CCM hitmaker AARON SHUST explains to Mike Rimmer how he landed up on a mainstream record label.
It's an extraordinary fact that the American singer/songwriter recently called by one journalist "the most successful new Christian artist of the last 12 months," has yet to gain a British release. But then, the success of Aaron Shust's 'Anything Worth Saying' album has taken everyone by surprise. In the USA, the debut song from the album "My Saviour, My God" has captured the imagination and driven the sales of the CD and for months it's been the most popular Christian song on American iTunes, even more popular than Chris Tomlin who is another worship leader to have really finally broken through Stateside in 2006 to megasales.
When I meet Aaron, I'm nervous that I might be saying his name wrong since I've never heard anyone say it, I've just read it. He quickly points out that it's pretty straight forward and rhymes with "juiced". "It's Russian and it was shortened from Shustakovich," he adds helpfully. It was shortened when his father was three. Three generations ago, his family moved to the USA from Russia.
Meeting him for the first time, I am struck by how much he looks like the actor Robert Downey Jnr. The one thing that I immediately like about Aaron is his gentle humility and ability to laugh at himself. In response to an enquiry about when he discovered that he had any musical talent, he laughs and responds, "Well that might be yet to be determined!" before he continues, "But I have been singing and playing all my life. I started singing when I was four, in a group in church. It's a great place just to flex your muscles of music. I was four years old, singing a solo, and all the old ladies loved it! So it's a good safe place to try it out. Piano since I was seven. I didn't really start songwriting until I went off to college. That's when I started the idea of getting some thoughts and putting it to a tune and see how that works together."
He writes on guitar and piano. "They come out differently," he observes. "Sometimes I'll write a song on guitar but I don't like the way it feels. So I'll move it to piano and all of a sudden it comes alive. I write a lot of songs on neither. Just in the shower, on a jog, at two o'clock in the morning. Just the melody comes through my head and so I write it there and then I have to run to an instrument to give it some life."
September 30th 1980 is a pivotal day in his life. "I prayed to ask God to be in control of my life. I was a month away from being five, but I remember it clearly. My mom explained to me about life, and decisions that need to be made and the fact that God loved me. It made me say, 'You know what? I need Jesus.' There was a fear of, yeah, I don't want to spend eternity without God. I want to spend eternity with God. I want to be forgiven of all my mistakes. So yeah please, God, whatever the magic words are, come into my heart! And I think he knows my heart. It's not about the magic words. There are no magic words. But that's where I made a decision to follow Christ."
It isn't uncommon for people brought up in Christian families to decide to follow Christ at a young age like that but sometimes when they get older there's a struggle as they put their faith into practice, particularly when they make it to the teen years. "I remember being about 10 years old," he says, "and I was at church watching.it's kind of blurry in my mind, but I know that there were a lot of people talking about in their teenage years, drifting away from God and the church. It was kind of like a prayer request; 'Pray for this person because she's doing this and she's making these mistakes.' There was a fear that came over me. Like, 'Man, five years from now I'm going to drift away! I'm gonna make a lot of bad decisions!' And just sitting up in the balcony one Sunday night I just prayed, 'God, don't let me drift like that. Let me stay close to you.' And sure I made my mistakes and my selfish decisions, but God held me closely."
Although he's been leading worship at his church since 2000 and in other settings before that, it still feels as though the success of the album has been a little bit of a fluke. It's almost as if Aaron is as surprised that it's such a success as the rest of us. "You'd be absolutely right," he admits. "I just had a handful of these songs that I was continuing to write and play at my church for offertories and a friend who is in the one of the worship bands said, 'We should record some of these songs in my basement. I'm thinking about building a studio.' I was like, 'Sure, sounds good to me. Let's do it.' I was just thinking, let's get some of these songs that are in my head. Let's put them on a disc. I'll send a copy to my mom and I'll burn a copy on my iPod and we'll be good. Half way through the recording process, after he built this great studio and brought in a great producer, I was listening to it and it started to get scary because I thought, this is starting to sound pretty good. There's gonna be somebody who's going to write a review on it and I'm not going to want to read it! But it was a cool thing to feel, I think God's got a bigger plan for this than I did."
He continues, "So we made 2000 copies and sold them mainly at my church or wherever I was playing on the road. A record label, Brash, got interested, in Atlanta. They picked it up and people have come around it; managers and people up here in Nashville and the industry saying, 'Hey, we believe in this project.' And that's been incredibly validating for me, just to feel like, 'Wow! I did something okay!' The thing is, God's doing the work. I'm just privileged to be a part of that. He's the one who's prompted me to write these songs."
One of the ironic things is that he didn't sign to a Christian label in Nashville. Brash is actually a non-Christian label and they approached Shust to sign him. Aaron explains, "Evidently, Mike McQuary, who owns Brash, was listening to it and got to about the third or fourth track before he realised, 'This guy's singing about God!' And rewound it and listened to it again and gave me a call and said, 'Hey, we're interested in signing you. We believe in the music.' And knowing that they weren't a Christian label at all, I asked them, 'Are you sure? Did you listen to the words? You know what I'm talking about? You know what I do, what I am?' But they responded 'Yeah. We believe in the music.' So we kicked the tyres a little bit to see if we liked each other and I signed a deal after some careful deliberation with the contract. It's been smooth-sailing ever since."
Was the success of "My Saviour, My God" a surprise for Aaron? He replies, "I knew that if one song was going to do well it would be that one. I was able to see from two years of experience with the people at my home church that that was the song that blessed people. What that means is, it touched their hearts. It struck an emotional chord. I was presenting the song and teaching it to them over the past couple of years, even before the chorus was written. I wrote the verses first and then a year and a half later I wrote the chorus. So my church had been singing the song for a year and a half when we popped this new chorus on and it kind of took the song to another level. They were just so moved by it, by the truth in these verses and the repetitive truth in the chorus reminding them that, my Saviour's alive and he loves me! He's always there for me."
He continues, "I was able to see people who have heard it for the first time in a worship setting just raise their hands when I kind of snuck in on a session that I wasn't a part of. I'd just watch this, like a senior high gathering or whatever, as they played this song and the people reacted pretty well. So I knew that song was going to have to go on the album. People were saying, 'You need to put it first! You need to put it at the front of the album!' But I wanted the flow of the album to feel like a worship service and I wanted that song to be near the end. So it's cool to see how well the world's embracing it."
I point out that success may well have its shortcomings. For starters Shust will have to face the ignominy of suffering dodgy cover versions of his most popular song. "The first time I heard a couple of those," he shares, "I was like, 'Oooh! Oh no!' But then my next thought was, 'You know what? That's cool.' Because this is a song that's supposed to be easily played and it's a heart issue. I think as musicians we can be wrapped up in this perfection we think we have to have in the studio. But yeah, play your best before the Lord. Play excellently and skilfully before him. Do your best. But it's a matter of just getting up there and letting your heart loose." I point out he's not going to feel that way when there's some really, really cheesy kids' version of it put out on CD! He laughs, "We'll see! We'll cross that bridge when we get there. I'm a little scared though!"
I ask him to describe his church. "It's a big church," he says simply. "Obviously there are a lot of churches that are bigger and a lot of churches that are smaller. It's a church that's been around for 27 years. The same pastor who founded it back in 1977, Randy Pope is the senior pastor there. It's a great solid Presbyterian church. I did not grow up in a Presbyterian church and so a lot of the theology was new to me. But I've grown to embrace it. It's a theology that exalts God and takes man and lowers man, which, if anything is going to happen, that's a good direction to move. I like that. So I've learned a whole lot. It's just been a great place to be rooted. A great place to have foundation and people around me that love me and hold me accountable. I've developed relationships over the past few years with everybody. It's nice."
He is no longer on the full time staff with the church but instead has a contract where he will lead worship for certain weekends. This allows him the flexibility to travel and do ministry in other parts of the country. He explains, "I've been mainly doing shows recently in support of the album, which were written to be worship songs with that intent. I understand that some of my friends listen to the album and say, 'Well this one would be a good congregational song and this one would be really difficult to sing congregationally.' So it's kind of become just a normal song, not necessarily a 'worship tune'. Even though the words are very worshipful, I think we communicate to God in the words of these songs."
The success of the song "My Saviour, My God" has caused the album to take off and the accompanying buzz of publicity must have made an impact on Shust's life. "It's made the schedule a little more busy!" he admits, "but beyond that I'm the same guy. I wear the same clothes and know the same people. Keep the same friends. Have the same family. But it's really encouraging to see how people across the nation are responding. I can get an email from somebody in California that says, 'Hey, I heard your song on the radio today and it made me pull over and re-evaluate the way I was thinking about life.' And that blows my mind! That's really cool. It reminds me that God is a whole lot bigger than I usually give him credit for. I know he's huge and he's immeasurable, but just to think that I don't even have to be in California singing my song or sharing my heart and God can still bless people."
While Shust continues to be the same guy, the way he is being treated will change because of the success. Is this something that he's been thinking of? "That is strange," he comments, "and unfortunately it appears to be inevitable. So I just try to be real with them and continue to act like a normal guy. Because I am."
This is a crucial time in Shust's life. As the time of our chat draws to a close, his wife comes into the room to remind him that they have to be somewhere else. Time for one last question. Does he have anybody in Christian music who is mentoring him? "Yeah," he smiles, "I have some good friends who have gone before me in Christian music and are still doing it. Just got to meet Geoff Moore recently and he's been a big influence. Billy Smiley and Scott Wesley Brown have been a great influence on me in the past few years. I got to meet them about three years ago, before I even made the album, working on a hymn project. Their pastor and my pastor are good friends. So they've been a great influence on me. I'm just taking life one step at a time, knowing that the album could blow up bigger than I ever imagined. Or people could lose interest tomorrow. I mean, this is a media frenzy world where flavours change overnight. I'm not even promised to be alive tomorrow so I worry about today; try to take responsibility for all my actions in the moment."
Shust's style of writing and performing seems to bridge a gap between worship leading and working as a singer/songwriter. In the last few years, the resurgence of the singer/songwriter in the mainstream pop market makes this the perfect time for him to emerge. "It depends on your outlook," he admits. "If it's a good wave to be a part of then I'm glad to be a part of it. If you look at it as competition, which I pray against all the time, then it could be a stifling and a scary thing. But I want to see the other singer/songwriters as comrades and not competition. So when I'm at a place on a chart and someone takes my place and moves ahead of me, I want to be able to say with all my heart, 'Good for you man! I love that song. Keep it up!' As opposed to, 'Awhh man, they took my spot!' It's not about competition, it's about all being on the same team for the Kingdom."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.